Beit Midrash

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Freedom … Not Only of Worship


Rabbi Yossef Carmel

After the plague of darkness, the negotiations in regard to the exodus from Egypt between Moshe and Pharaoh were renewed (Shemot 10:24-26). Pharaoh was prepared for the women and children to join the men in a religious festival in the desert, but he would not allow the people to bring their flocks. Moshe responded that Bnei Yisrael must be allowed to bring all of their animals (along with a fair share of Pharaoh’s animals). We need to understand whether this was just a financial negotiation or whether something deeper was involved here.
After Hashem hardened Pharaoh’s heart, a short exchange developed between the two, in which Pharaoh said: "I will not continue to see your face," and Moshe agreed that indeed that would be the case (ibid. 10:28-29). We should notice that until this point Moshe had never asked for complete freedom. Even at the burning bush, he had been instructed to tell Pharaoh to allow the people to journey off into the desert and bring sacrifices (ibid. 3:16-18). This request and the varied responses of Pharaoh repeated themselves when Moshe first went to Pharaoh (ibid. 5:1-3) and after the plague of arov (ibid. 8:23). Only after the plague of darkness did Moshe say that they would "not leave a hoof."
Let us put things in perspective. Moshe had originally asked for freedom of religion – as found expression in a festival of service of Hashem. Since what Bnei Yisrael were supposed to do was against the Egyptian religion, they needed to go a few days’ journey into the desert. Had Pharaoh agreed, Bnei Yisrael would have been acting under the auspices of Pharaoh, and even Moshe would have been incorporated into the Egyptian political apparatus in one form or another. He would have been one of those who "see the face of the king" (a phrase we find in other courts in Tanach – see Esther 1:14). In the argument that developed after the plague of darkness, Pharaoh was warning Moshe that the way he was going, he would no longer be one who sees the face of the king. In other words, he warned Moshe that he would be breaking ties with Egypt and would have to take responsibility for the Israelites, with all this includes. Moshe, when saying, "indeed, I will not continue to see your face," was saying that he was ready to make a full break from Pharaoh and was demanding independence.
The idea of a break from Egypt was not something that only Pharaoh saw as a threat. Bnei Yisrael also had to get used the idea. Time and time again, when trouble arose (including the danger leading up to the splitting of the sea – Shemot 14:13), they complained to Moshe that he had taken them out of Egypt and into the desert. Indeed, the quick and total separation was not easy for them either.
An important lesson for generations is that the nature of liberation, certainly of the final one, is that it takes place slowly. Even in Egypt, where it ended quickly, there was a process in which not only Pharaoh but also Bnei Yisrael had to get used to the idea – one stage at a time. In our time-period, when we are in the midst of the beginning stages of the final redemption, we should remember that we need to go step-by-step and cannot try to take shortcuts.
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